Great Football League Teams 1: Leeds United 1989-90

Posted by on Nov 14, 2010 in Great Teams | 14 Comments

The 1980s could not have been more miserable for Leeds United. Unfortunate to suffer an eight year sojourn outside Division 1 at a time when football reached its lowest ebb and beset by hooliganism and low gates, it was a decade of despair matched only by their recent, financially driven decline. Lowlights included Paul Petts’ hat-trick in a 5-1 defeat at Gay Meadow in 1983 and a 5-0 tonking by Chelsea that saw the whites’ hated rivals promoted on the last day of that same campaign. Throughout the period, Leeds had obsessively relied on the heroes of yesteryear to kickstart recovery – the permanently scowling Allan Clarke had taken them down and Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner had also failed at the tiller. Only a run to the FA Cup Semi Final in 1987 provided cheer, and even the emergent skills of the talented John Sheridan could do nothing to offset a flimsiness that made Leeds an easy scalp for the likes of Grimsby and Oldham.

Enter Sergeant Wilko at the back end of the 1988-89 season. Howard Wilkinson’s first act, aside from tearing down the photographs of the Revie heroes adorning the walls of Elland Road, was to bring in top flight experience in Chris Fairclough and Gordon Strachan. The Peacocks finished that season in spritely mood but these were but initial moves in the master plan.

It has long been asserted that “playing football” will do nothing to get you out of the lower divisions, a theory roundly disproved not only by metaphysics but by the likes of West Bromwich Albion, Manchester City and Reading since. But the Leeds of 1989, along with perhaps this year’s Newcastle United vintage, provide the supporting evidence for Charles Hughes apologists. Nothing could have been achieved without Strachan: the provider of the skeleton key to assist Leeds’ bludgeoning; but the signing of Vinnie Jones on a rainy summer day provided the clearest signal of Wilkinson’s intent. Maligned as a pure thug, Jones wasn’t the only man who could put it about – a young David Batty partnered him in a fearsomely aggressive midfield and Mel Sterland and Mike Whitlow also relished a slider. Up top, post-xmas stiffener Lee Chapman was all arms and elbows and Mickey Thomas snapped at opponents’ heels, albeit in only a trio of appearances.

With that cast of characters, Leeds must have been deeply unpleasant to play against (the sledging will have been world class) and so it transpired. A 5-2 opening day dousing by a Micky Quinn inspired Newcastle proved a counterfeit dawn as Leeds shifted inexorably up the table. The press reaction was to vilify. Leeds were still deeply unpopular from their Seventies days and their fans’ terrace exploits had continued to provoke hatred. A 1-0 win at West Ham in October, with Jones on the score sheet, provoked special vitriol, fuelled as it was by the London media’s unfathomable love affair with those rag tag Eastenders.

Amid the semi-warfare, there were pockets of brilliance – Jones curled in a beautifully placed shot in a home win over penny-chew kitted Brighton and the attendances rose. Those bigger gates fuelled a pre-Christmas run that saw Middlesbrough defeated and the Magpies avenged and the Lowfield Road stand was rocking. Into the Spring and Chapman was hitting the net regularly, youngster Gary Speed was breaking through and Leeds destroyed closest rivals Sheffield United 4-0 in a season defining moment – and yet, at the moment of triumph, the 1-0 clinching win over Bournemouth was spoiled by the supporters again.

In a ruthless move reminiscent of Prince Hal’s disavowal of Falstaff, Wilkinson sent Jones packing, brought in Gary McAllister, John Lukic and, eventually, a certain seagull fancying Frenchman. Two years later, Leeds were the best team in England. Could the current crop return to those nosebleed inducing heights?

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

12 Comments

  1. Lloyd
    November 15, 2010

    Nice post. Slightly before my time, but you've painted a picture.

    Suggestions for future teams to cover would be Reading of 2005-2006 (obviously), as well as Wigan and Fulham as they were climbing up the leagues. Also, Luke Beckett's Chesterfield and Zamora's Brighton perhaps (although the former would be contentious)?

    Plymouth’s 102 point season in 2001/2002's Division 3 would also have to be a contender.

    Reply
  2. Ben
    November 15, 2010

    Thanks for this. I have vivid memories of this season. The signings of Strachan, Fairclough, Jones and Chapman were indeed crucial as was the emergence of Batty and Speed, but the early season contributions of John Hendrie and Bobby Davison (who scored in five successive games in October/November 1989) shouldn't be forgotten. We should have run away with the title, but it all got a bit 'squeaky bum' in March/April when we took two points from a possible 12. The cathartic 4-0 thumping of Sheffield United put us back on track, but we still needed to win the last two games to guarantee promotion. You mention the final game against Bournemouth, but the one that sticks in my mind is the penultimate game of the season – at home to Leicester. Leicester had a useful youngster with a mullet called Gary McAllister, who made life tricky for us that afternoon. It was 1-1 with 6 minutes left of a game that we really needed to win. And then this happened: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AZfJB29Jjg
    I was in my student bedroom in Sheffield with the radio tuned to BBC Radio Leeds (aerial sticking out of the window to get reception), listening to the garbled commentary in the foetal position no doubt gnawing the leg of my desk, desperately willing something to happen. My current tinitis may date from the damage I did to my ear drums on that day at that moment when that shot went in.

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  3. Lanterne Rouge
    November 15, 2010

    cheers Ben – you evoke some good memories and yes – John Hendrie and Bobby Davison deserve credit as well as Ian Baird although I can't remember if he had moved on by then? That McAllister moment is telling – it's always godo policy to sign players who have hurt you in the past.

    Of course it was squaky bum time again two years later when Leeds lost 4-0 at Man City in the run in – but Kenny Brown's winner for West Ham against Man United set up that dramatic last day at Bramall Lane.

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  4. Matt R
    November 15, 2010

    “Bill is Dead” was 20 years ago? Bloody hell.

    Reply
  5. Lanterne Rouge
    November 15, 2010

    Although combative, I do partly accept your point that many of the problems of the eighties wer added to by the pig headedness of the authorities who often seemed to invite fans to behave badly.

    As for Bill is Dead, it's from a relatively maligned album by the Fall, Extricate but perhaps unfairly so and only because it signalled their flirtation with a major label.

    Reply
  6. Ben
    November 16, 2010

    As I recall, the usual suspects in the press were baying for Leeds to be thrown out of the league/demoted/burnt at the stake etc after the Bournemouth game. The Daily Mail (predictably) was particularly egregious.

    Lanterne – Yes, Baird and Davison was the first choice partnership at the beginning of that season, but Bairdy demanded a transfer when Howard Wilkinson signed Lee Chapman – a decision he regrets: http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/leedsunited/Regrets-I-have-a-few.4720846.jp

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  7. Lanterne Rouge
    November 16, 2010

    That's interesting. Baird was an enigma – loved by the fans and integral to that FA Cup semi final run but pretty limited in truth and very much a lower division player. Chapman, not renowned as the most skilled player himself, had a lot more nous.

    I remember the outcry and you are spot on – the papers were up in arms against Leeds.

    Reply
  8. Ben
    November 17, 2010

    I had a lot of time for Baird, but he just wasn't good enough for the top flight. And if he had stayed he would have been back-up for Chapman (probably behind Carl Shutt). The signing of Rod Wallace showed that Wilkinson was aware of the limited nature of the strike force that got us up. Chapman was a lumbering hulk of a player, but I have rarely seen a centre forward with better positional sense and a knack for making the correct run. What he lacked in speed and subtlety was compensated by a keen footballing intelligence.

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  9. Jeremy Parker
    November 18, 2010

    Only a small point, but the 5-0 at Chelsea had it's fair share of trouble too – mainly from the home fans. It started with being taken from the coach to the HOME end turnstiles (nice work coppers). The whole game was played with Chelsea fans surrounding the touchline, to the point that a space had to be cleared for a throw in or corner to be taken. A full scale invasion every time a goal was scored and the ref being knocked over by fans after the fourth. The game also finished 5 mins early as I think the ref had had enough. You couldn't blame the players for being intimidated by it and these days it would have been called off long before the end. I know the Leeds fans weren't blameless that day (concrete block through the scoreboard)but then being kept in the ground for an hour and a half after the game didn't help either.

    Reply
  10. Frank Heaven
    November 18, 2010

    Bournemouth '90 was one of the last kicks of the dying beast that was 1980s football hooliganism.

    The pictures were beamed around the globe – I was in Australia at the time – and with the World Cup round the corner, the media licked their lips at the prospect of acres of column inches devoted to these animals invading Italy.

    What transpired, of course, was very different. England's run to the semis, Gazza tears, and all the rest of it put football back in a positive light in the eyes of the English public.

    After promotion, Leeds fans' reputation for creating an intimidating atmosphere continued – but the scenes at Bournemouth that May were never repeated.

    Reply
  11. Lanterne Rouge
    November 18, 2010

    I was at that Chelsea game and yes, it was nainly the home fans who caused the trouble – it was a poisonous atmopshere although a great Chelsea side that we shall probably feature in an upcoming intsallment of the series.

    I would say it was a low point if not that I was at a previous meeting between the two clubs earlier in the Eighties – a 0-0 draw that saw fans rip seats out and use them as projectiles.

    Reply
  12. deano
    June 2, 2011

    remember this season well missed the first six games as i was gravely ill in a comma in hospital when i came around it was strange that i missed the first six matches but soon caught up and what a great season it turned out to be

    Reply

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